Sunday, September 18, 2016

Orthodox Challenges

For quite a long time I have felt a draw to Eastern Orthodoxy. Orthodox view on theology are very appealing to me for their sense of mystery as well as lack of rigid dogmatism. So, too, is the idea of theosis and the spirituality of Orthodoxy. It seems to offer the ability to become truly close to God without the strictness of the West. For the East, economy heals a multitude of problems. Their liturgy and sacramental forms are equally beautiful, although I will confess that their length and complexity seem daunting to me! For this reason, Western Orthodoxy seems to be an ideal draw. Here is the very best of Orthodox theology with Western prayers and a familiarity that feels "like home." It would also take a bit of work to get used to the extensive fasts!

This view towards Western Orthodoxy is the first of three challenges I see for people who are reluctant to "swim the Dnieper." In America, there has been a great interest in Western Orthodoxy. This is often from former Episcopalians, who are upset with the idea of LGBT inclusion as well as women priests. Often attracted, as well, are Roman Catholic traditionalists who are unenthusiastic about the Novus Ordo liturgy. Despite Westerners willingness to become Orthodox it is apparent that the welcome is not always warm. The Antiochians and ROCOR have set up Western Rite Vicariates, but they appear segregated from the rest of Orthodoxy. I would imagine that a Western Orthodox lay person who shows up at a Bulgarian Orthodox Church will likely receive a confused welcome. The truth is, I don't think Orthodoxy quite knows what to do with this little part of the Body of Christ. I suspect that many secretly (or openly) wish they would just adapt to the Eastern Rite. Also challenging is the politics of some of the converts, who can come from traditions that are much more involved in culture wars than many Orthodox. Like the Ordinariate, they seem to be frozen in a place that is neither miserable nor truly welcomed.

The second challenge is the issue of ethnicity. This is not to say that other churches do not experience challenges with ethnicity. In fact, at the turn of the century it was animus towards the Poles which spurred the growth of the Polish National Catholic Church. Not to mention the establishment of buildings like "St. Anthony Italian Catholic parish" and "St. Patrick Irish Catholic parish." But the Orthodox seem to dislike each other with a glee that is unparalleled in other parts of Christianity. Sometimes, it is over power. The case to which I am referring is when one Church ceases to commemorate the leader of another because they have encroached into their (missionary) territory. There are numerous examples of this occurring. Other times, it seems to be just plain ethnocentrism. With territorial boundaries constantly changing in Eastern Europe people built an identity based on a common history, faith, etc. Flecks of nationalism crept into Orthodoxy so extensively that it had to be condemned (phyletism). It has (and continues to) reached a boiling point in America, where multiple jurisdictions overlap. This produces things like the Bulgarian Diocese of the Bulgarian Church as well as the Bulgarian Diocese of the Orthodox Church in America. It also can produce hurt feelings at a local level, as numerous articles have detailed instances where people were not welcomed because of their backgrounds. It can seem perplexing to Greek Orthodox Church members why a John Smith or a Mary Jones would want to join their Church. This can, perhaps, be addressed by constant vigilance.

The last challenge is more specific to certain groups. It is the challenge of extremism. This largely seems to escape many "mainstream" Orthodox jurisdictions, except among converts. It seems to be frequently demonstrated in so-called Old Calendarist or resisting groups. Perusing the Facebook profiles and blog posts of clergy of these groups, it is evident that there is something disturbing about their outlook. There can be a promotion of secrecy, conspiracy, and contrarianism. To the average convert these can seem quite off putting. Again, the West is not exempt from these things either. There are numerous Roman Catholic traditionalist groups who believe the "real pope is locked in the basement of the Vatican" or subscribe to elaborate conspiracy theories about those who aim to hurt them, their beloved church, and their nation. In Orthodoxy, however, it seems to be condoned at the highest levels and even promoted. Attempts at rational debate or providing facts can be met with downright hostility. The idea of "everyone is out to get us" promotes insularity as well as fear wrapped in mistrust. Equally challenging is the close tie of religious authorities to political leaders in many countries, where the Church can be seen as an extension of the state. This is a dangerous precedent and, I would venture to say, is entirely foreign to Americans.

For these reasons, I have resisted any closer link to Orthodoxy. In the vagante world, Orthodox infusions can be promoted. Blending Western liturgies with Eastern views is quite popular. It also has the appearance of being exotic, as the average American is unfamiliar with Orthodoxy except when it's been on the Simpsons. This may be a landing point for many people who seek to avoid the above pitfalls.

"With respect to the attitudes of others towards us: We are not responsible for what other people are or what they may do, but we are responsible for our sins against them." - Elder Sergei of Vanves

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